It never ceases to amaze me the amount of food and medicine all around us. Every time I’ve learned about a new herb, plant or wild food it starts to appear everywhere, even though it was there all along. The first time I encountered chaga mushrooms in the wild, I spied a tumour-like thing jutting out of a birch tree. I looked at it and it looked at me. Peeking out from behind its charred-like exterior I saw its golden-yellowish-orange heart. Then I knew what I had found the discovery of a lifetime: one of the best natural medicines for the immune system.
What Is Chaga?
Chaga is a medicinal mushroom. It’s found on birch trees in cold climates, takes a long time to grow, and can be quite large. With most other mushrooms, we consume the fruiting body and not the mycelium – the root system below. It’s the other way around with chaga mushrooms: we use the mycelium and the fruiting body remains behind inside the tree.
Health Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms
Chaga is nicknamed the King of the Mushrooms due to its high nutrient value and its ability to modulate the immune system. Research indicates that chaga has anti-cancer, anti-tumor, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Some of the key compounds in chaga mushrooms include:
- Beta glucans: these compounds adapt to what your immune system needs, boosting or lowering an immune response as needed
- Betulin and Betulinic acid: these contain anticancer, antiviral, antibacterial, antimalarial and anti-HIV properties
- Phytosterols: these help to reduce cholesterol levels
- Chitin: this boosts the immune system and helps with wound healing
Promising evidence shows that chaga mushrooms can:
- Protect against ulcers
- Address autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress (damage to our cells)
- Help to balance blood sugar levels
- Lower cholesterol
- Protect against Alzheimer’s disease
- Inhibit HIV replication
Ways to Process and Enjoy Chaga Mushrooms
There are several ways you can use chaga, but it’s not like other soft mushroom varieties that can be easily chopped and cooked quickly in recipes. You can’t just pick chaga off the tree and take a bite. Since chaga is tough, there are several methods you can use to extract the medicinal properties.
Break Them Into Chunks and Boil Them (Decoction/Tea)
Most chaga mushrooms are very large. You’ll need to break them down into smaller chunks (I use a trusty hammer for this) and boil them in a large pot of water for at least an hour. The resulting liquid can be strained and consumed as a tea straight up or with a little bit of raw honey, or you can add further herbs to steep in it. You can also use this liquid in soups, stews and stocks, or chill it to use in smoothies.
Chaga mushrooms are quite dense. You can boil them multiple times to extract all of the beneficial properties and still end up with a dark, lovely tea. Ensure you save the chaga chunks after straining the liquid to re-use them. Chaga is the mushroom that keeps on giving!
Grind Into a Powder
Chaga chunks can be ground into a fine powder using a high speed blender. The grinding process increases the surface area, which makes steeping a cup of chaga tea much quicker. This is really only possible if you do this shortly after it is harvested. After it dries, it becomes too hard to make into a powder.
Tinctures are a great way to extract the medicinal constituents out of an herb and have it readily available whenever you want. You don’t have to fuss with teas, decoctions – you can simply take a dropper full of the tincture. Plus, when stored properly a tincture has a shelf life of at least 5 years!
There are some components of chaga mushrooms that cannot be extracted by water alone. Tincturing in alcohol liberates specific components such as betulinic acid, betulin and phyto-sterols.
How to Make a Chaga Mushroom Tincture
You can make basic tinctures with very little work or effort!
1. Add small chaga chunks or powdered chaga to a 500ml (half litre) mason jar. Fill the jar about halfway, as you want room for the liquid.
2. Pour alcohol into the jar, covered the chaga by 1 to 2 inches. I like using organic vodka.
3. Stir well to ensure the chaga is completely submerged and coated with the alcohol to prevent anything from growing mold.
4. Place a small piece of parchment on the top of the jar and then screw the lid on top. The parchment acts as a seal that prevents the plastic or rubber in the lid from coming into contact with your tincture.
5. Label the jar with the tincture name (chaga) and date.
6. Shake the jar twice daily and leave it in a cool, dark place for a month.
7. Strain the liquid using a fine mesh strainer or a nut milk bag over a bowl. Save the mulch to make a double extraction (instructions below).
8. Save the liquid. It will be combined with the water extraction. (see below)
There are some constituents in chaga that are best extracted in alcohol and some that are released in water. I save the mulch from my tinctures made from chaga mushrooms to do an additional water extraction. This releases a compound called chitin, which has a very tough cell wall that is hard to break down. Chitin has immune-boosting, antioxidant, antimicrobial and wound healing properties, plus it has been studied for its ability to lower cholesterol, and regenerate tissues and nerves.
To add a water extraction to your tincture:
1. Take the strained mulch (from step #7 above) and put it in the freezer. Freezing chaga helps the chitin burst open.
2. Place the mulch in a pot, and fill the with water. This water is going to reduce down over hours, so don’t be afraid to almost completely fill a large pot.
3. Boil until the liquid reduces to about a 1/2 cup.
4. Add the 1/2 cup chaga decoction with your alcohol chaga tincture and mix. Add to tincture bottles and take daily.
Where to Find Chaga Mushrooms
My wife and I have been hunting and foraging for mushrooms for years, so we grab our chaga in the forest. However, it’s important to hunt for mushrooms safely. If you can’t recognize mushrooms accurately (or don’t live near the woods), visit your local health food store or purchase chaga online.
Chaga mushrooms won’t have the chance to work if you don’t take them. Find a way to use them that you enjoy and make it a habit!